Is It Diabetes Distress or Depression?

Last updated: November 2022

Depression used to be considered a natural response to the workload of managing a chronic disease like diabetes. That makes sense, right? But over time, research has begun to separate depression from the experience of diabetes. From that comes a new and more accurate description of the emotional toll of diabetes.1

What is the link between diabetes and depression?

The link between depression and diabetes isn't clear-cut. We know if you have diabetes, you also have a higher risk of depression, and vice versa (if you have depression, you have a higher risk of diabetes). In fact, you're 2 to 3 times more likely to have depression than those without diabetes. It isn't exactly clear why the connection between these two diagnoses exists.1

Some research shows environmental factors and physical changes in your body play a role, along with the burden of managing diabetes and how you view the condition. Struggling to manage either depression or diabetes can make the other condition more complicated and harder to manage.1

What is diabetes distress?

Many people with diabetes experience a range of feelings and emotions related to having diabetes and the work it takes to manage it. This is called diabetes distress.2

Symptoms of diabetes distress

While symptoms of depression and diabetes distress can be similar, symptoms of diabetes distress may not be severe enough to be captured on depression screenings. That may leave you feeling isolated or invalidated.

Diabetes distress is a very real experience. Over 50 percent of people with diabetes report distress over any 12-month period. It's often a constant, not something that ebbs and flows, making diabetes feel even more burdensome.1,2

Differences between diabetes distress and depression

Trying to figure out if you’re struggling with diabetes distress or depression can be hard. Here are some differences between them.

To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, you must have at least 5 of the symptoms below, lasting for 2 weeks or more.1

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of pleasure in usual activities
  • Changes in appetite
  • Either difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Changes in body movements (slower or faster movements than normal)
  • Exhaustion
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks

Diabetes distress affects people with diabetes in different ways. The strength and type of emotion varies from person to person. One thing in common is that these emotions and actions are related solely to the burden of having diabetes and/or managing diabetes. Here are some signs and feelings you may experience if you have diabetes distress:1

  • Burnt out
  • Overwhelmed, defeated
  • Frustrated, angry
  • Guilt
  • Denial
  • Lonely, scared/fearful
  • Poor self-care behaviors, unmotivated
  • Difficulty taking medicine

How to get help

Struggling with depression or diabetes distress can make it much harder to manage diabetes well. That means treatment and support are critical to your health and well-being (physically and emotionally). Treatment options for depression range from medicines to a variety of therapies and more.1

Treatment options for diabetes distress can include diabetes self-management training, counseling/therapy services, and other mental health services. In my experience, I’ve seen those with diabetes gain a lot of support just from connecting with others who have diabetes.1

Living with diabetes is hard

Living with diabetes is HARD, and it’s normal to feel a range of negative emotions related to your diabetes. It is also more common than you think to experience depression with diabetes.

Managing distress and/or depression can help support your diabetes management and, more importantly, your overall quality of life. Talk to your medical team if you think you may be experiencing any of these symptoms so they can help get you the support you need.

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